It’s hardly a surprise that corporate leaders have spent more than a century trying to remake schools in their own companies’ images so that they become more competitive, efficient, and productive. Of course, business has not always lived up to its own standards—think Detroit in the 1970s and Enron in the ’90s. But as education historian Larry Cuban reveals in his captivating new book, this hasn’t stopped businesspeople from insisting that they know best.
After World War I, for instance, industries seeking workers with appropriate skills lobbied for intensive vocational programs; during the 1990s, certain that technology was the answer to everything, companies pushed for computers in every school. These days, they believe that standardization is the answer to our educational woes; so they’ve decreed, along with the federal government, that student test scores should be the bottom line. As Cuban laments, “Now only one kind of ‘good’ district, only one kind of ‘good’ school, and only one kind of ‘good’ teaching is considered correct.”
Cuban is a former high school teacher and district superintendent who’s now a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, and he, like others of us in the profession, knows that the differences between businesses and schools are immense and often intractable. Those who enter business are driven, Cuban writes, by “love of competition, the rewards of winning, of rising to the top of an organization.” Teachers, on the other hand, bring into the profession “an ideal of serving the young.” While educators do want students to excel academically, they also want to instill good values and encourage creativity and intellectual curiosity. It’s impossible—or should be impossible— to be with young people day after day and not focus on these things.
But don’t businesses also want people of character and innovative capacity? Of course they do. In survey after survey, as Cuban notes, employers say that traits like personality and dependability “trump academic achievements and computer skills.” Ironically, then, business leaders have been promoting a method of training—standardization and testing—that works against their own interests. They’ve been doing this, Cuban suggests, because it’s much easier for government and business to promote monolithic and measurable reforms than those that are more nuanced. That’s why progressive practices, such as portfolios and integrated curricula enriched with art and music, no longer have cachet.
This is not to say that Cuban backs only progressive reforms and is opposed to all testing. What he really wants is “competing views of an appropriate education,” in which progressive and democratically driven schools exist alongside traditional ones. Cuban, in fact, does not want businesses to stay out of education but rather to show a great deal more humility in their involvement. They should stop asking how schools can be more like them and instead consider— especially in this era of rampant corporate corruption—the ways in which it’s OK for schools to be different.
A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2005 edition of Teacher as Books